Read CHAPTER XXI - BRET HARTE’S STYLE of The Life of Bret Harte With Some Account of the California Pioneers , free online book, by Henry Childs Merwin, on

In discussing Bret Harte, it is almost impossible to separate substance from style. The style is so good, so exactly adapted to the ideas which he wishes to convey, that one can hardly imagine it as different. Some thousands of years ago an Eastern sage remarked that he would like to write a book such as everybody would conceive that he might have written himself, and yet so good that nobody else could have written the like. This is the ideal which Bret Harte fulfilled. Almost everything said by any one of his characters is so accurate an expression of that character as to seem inevitable. It is felt at once to be just what such a character must have said. Given the character, the words follow; and anybody could set them down! This is the fallacy underlying that strange feeling, which every reader must have experienced, of the apparent easiness of writing an especially good conversation or soliloquy.

The real difficulty of writing like Bret Harte is shown by the fact that as a story-teller he has no imitators. His style is so individual as to make imitation impossible. And yet occasionally the inspiration failed. It is a peculiarity of Bret Harte, shown especially in the longer stories, and most of all perhaps in Gabriel Conroy, that there are times when the reader almost believes that Bret Harte has dropped the pen, and some inferior person has taken it up. Author and reader come to the ground with a thud.

Mr. Warren Cheney has remarked upon this defect as follows:

“With most authors there is a level of general excellence along which they can plod if the wings of genius chance to tire for a time; but with Mr. Harte the case is a different one. His powers are impulsive rather than enduring. Ideas strike him with extraordinary force, but the inspiration is of equally short duration. So long as the flush of excitement lasts, his work will be up to standard; but when the genius flags, he has no individual fund of dramatic or narrative properties to sustain him.”

But of these lapses there are few in the short stories, and none at all in the best stories. In them the style is almost flawless. There are no mannerisms in it; no affectations; no egotism; no slang (except, of course, in the mouths of the various characters); nothing local or provincial, nothing which stamps it as of a particular age, country or school, nothing, in short, which could operate as a barrier between author and reader.

But these are only negative virtues. What are the positive virtues of Bret Harte’s style? Perhaps the most obvious quality is the deep feeling which pervades it. It is possible, indeed, to have good style without depth of feeling. John Stuart Mill is an example; Lord Chesterfield is another; Benjamin Franklin another. In general, however, want of feeling in the author produces a coldness in the style that chills the reader. Herbert Spencer’s autobiography discloses an almost inhuman want of feeling, and the same effect is apparent in his dreary, frigid style.

On the other hand, it is a truism that the language of passion is invariably effective, and never vulgar. Grief and anger are always eloquent. There are men, even practised authors, who never write really well unless something has occurred to put them out of temper. Good style may perhaps be said to result from the union of deep feeling with an artistic sense of form. This produces that conciseness for which Bret Harte’s style is remarkable. What author has used shorter words, has expressed more with a few words, or has elaborated so little! His points are made with the precision of a bullet going straight to the mark, and nothing is added.

How effective, for example, is this dialogue between Helen Maynard, who has just met the one-armed painter for the first time, and the French girl who accompanies her: “’So you have made a conquest of the recently acquired but unknown Greek statue?’ said Mademoiselle Renee lightly.

“‘It is a countryman of mine,’ said Helen simply.

“‘He certainly does not speak French,’ said Mademoiselle mischievously.

“‘Nor think it,’ responded Helen, with equal vivacity.”

Possibly Bret Harte sometimes carries this dramatic conciseness a little too far, so far that the reader’s attention is drawn from the matter in hand to the manner in which it is expressed. To take an example, Johnson’s Old Woman ends as follows:

“‘I want to talk to you about Miss Johnson,’ I said eagerly.

“‘I reckon so,’ he said with an exasperating smile. ’Most fellers do. But she ain’t Miss Johnson no more. She’s married.’

“‘Not to that big chap over from Ten Mile Mills?’ I said breathlessly.

“‘What’s the matter with him,’ said Johnson. ’Ye didn’t expect her to marry a nobleman, did ye?’

“I said I didn’t see why she shouldn’t, and believed that she had.”

This is extremely clever, but perhaps its very cleverness, and its abruptness, divert the reader’s interest for a moment from the story to the person who tells it.

One other characteristic of Bret Harte’s style, and indeed of any style which ranks with the best, is obvious, and that is subtlety. It is the office of a good style to express in some indefinable manner those nuances which mere words, taken by themselves, are not fine enough to convey. Thoughts so subtle as to have almost the character of feelings; feelings so well defined as just to escape being thoughts; attractions and repulsions; those obscure movements of the intellect of which the ordinary man is only half conscious until they are revealed to him by the eye of genius; all these things it is a part of style to express, or at least to imply. Subtlety of style presupposes, of course, subtlety of thought, and possibly also subtlety of perception. Certainly Bret Harte had both of these capacities; and many examples might be cited of his minute and sympathetic observation. For instance, although he had no knowledge of horses, and occasionally betrays his ignorance in this respect, yet he has described the peculiar gait of the American trotter with an accuracy which any technical person might envy. “The driver leaned forward and did something with the reins Rose never could clearly understand what, though it seemed to her that he simply lifted them with ostentatious lightness; but the mare suddenly seemed to lengthen herself and lose her height, and the stalks of wheat on either side of the dusty track began to melt into each other, and then slipped like a flash into one long, continuous, shimmering green hedge. So perfect was the mare’s action that the girl was scarcely conscious of any increased effort.... So superb was the reach of her long, easy stride that Rose could scarcely see any undulations in the brown, shining back on which she could have placed her foot, nor felt the soft beat of the delicate hoofs that took the dust so firmly and yet so lightly."

Equally correct is the description of the “great, yellow mare” Jovita, that carried Dick Bullen on his midnight ride: “From her Roman nose to her rising haunches, from her arched spine hidden by the stiff manchillas of a Mexican saddle, to her thick, straight bony legs, there was not a line of equine grace. In her half-blind but wholly vicious white eyes, in her protruding under lip, in her monstrous color, there was nothing but ugliness and vice.”

Jovita, plainly, was drawn from life, and she must have been of thoroughbred blood on one side, for her extraordinary energy and temper could have been derived from no other source. Such a mare would naturally have an unusually straight hind leg; and Bret Harte noticed it.

As to his heroines, he had such a faculty of describing them that they stand before us almost as clearly as if we saw them in the flesh. He does not simply tell us that they are beautiful, we see for ourselves that they are so; and one reason for this is the sympathetic keenness with which he observed all the details of the human face and figure. Thus Julia Porter’s face “appeared whiter at the angles of the mouth and nose through the relief of tiny freckles like grains of pepper.”

There are subtleties of coloring that have escaped almost everybody else. Who but Bret Harte has really described the light which love kindles upon the face of a woman? “Yerba Buena’s strangely delicate complexion had taken on itself that faint Alpine glow that was more of an illumination than a color.” And so of Cressy, as the Schoolmaster saw her at the dance. “She was pale, he had never seen her so beautiful.... The absence of color in her usually fresh face had been replaced by a faint magnetic aurora that seemed to him half spiritual. He could not take his eyes from her; he could not believe what he saw.”

The forehead, the temples, and more especially the eyebrows of his heroines these and the part which they play in the expression of emotion, are described by Bret Harte with a particularity which cannot be found elsewhere. Even the eyelashes of his heroines are often carefully painted in the picture. Flora Dimwood “cast a sidelong glance” at the hero, “under her widely-spaced, heavy lashes.” Of Mrs. Brimmer, the fastidious Boston woman, it is said that “a certain nervous intensity occasionally lit up her weary eyes with a dangerous phosphorescence, under their brown fringes.”

The eyes and eyelashes of that irrepressible child, Sarah Walker, are thus minutely and pathetically described: “Her eyes were of a dark shade of burnished copper, the orbits appearing deeper and larger from the rubbing in of habitual tears from long wet lashes.”

Bret Harte has the rare faculty of making even a tearful woman attractive. The Ward of the Golden Gate “drew back a step, lifted her head with a quick toss that seemed to condense the moisture in her shining eyes, and sent what might have been a glittering dewdrop flying into the loosened tendrils of her hair.” The quick-tempered heroine is seen “hurriedly disentangling two stinging tears from her long lashes”; and even the mannish girl, Julia Porter, becomes femininely deliquescent as she leans back in the dark stage-coach, with the romantic Cass Beard gazing at her from his invisible corner. “How much softer her face looked in the moonlight! How moist her eyes were actually shining in the light! How that light seemed to concentrate in the corner of the lashes, and then slipped flash away! Was she? Yes, she was crying.”

There is great subtlety not only of perception but of thought in the description of the Two Americans at the beginning of their intimacy:

“Oddly enough, their mere presence and companionship seemed to excite in others that tenderness they had not yet felt themselves. Family groups watched the handsome pair in their innocent confidence and, with French exuberant recognition of sentiment, thought them the incarnation of Love. Something in their manifest equality of condition kept even the vainest and most susceptible of spectators from attempted rivalry or cynical interruption. And when at last they dropped side by side on a sun-warmed stone bench on the terrace, and Helen, inclining her brown head toward her companion, informed him of the difficulty she had experienced in getting gumbo soup, rice and chicken, corn cakes, or any of her favorite home dishes in Paris, an exhausted but gallant boulevardier rose from a contiguous bench, and, politely lifting his hat to the handsome couple, turned slowly away from what he believed were tender confidences he would not permit himself to hear.”

Without this subtlety, a writer may have force, even eloquence, as Johnson and Macaulay had those qualities, but he is not likely to have an enduring charm. Subtlety seems to be the note of the best modern writers, of the Oxford school in particular, a subtlety of language which extracts from every word its utmost nicety of meaning, and a subtlety of thought in which every faculty is on the alert to seize any qualification or limitation, any hint or suggestion that might be hovering obscurely about the subject.

Yet subtlety, more perhaps than any other quality of a good style, easily becomes a defect. If it is the forte of some writers, it is the foible, not to say the vice, of others. The later works of Henry James, for instance, will at once occur to the Reader as an example. Bret Harte himself is sometimes, but rarely, over-subtle, representing his characters as going through processes of thought or speech much too elaborate for them, or for the occasion.

There is an example of this in Susy, where Clarence says: “’If I did not know you were prejudiced by a foolish and indiscreet woman, I should believe you were trying to insult me as you have your adopted mother, and would save you the pain of doing both in her house by leaving it now and forever.’”

And again, in A Secret of Telegraph Hill, where Herbert Bly says to the gambler whom he has surprised in his room, hiding from the Vigilance Committee: “’Whoever you may be, I am neither the police nor a spy. You have no right to insult me by supposing that I would profit by a mistake that made you my guest, and that I would refuse you the sanctuary of the roof that covers your insult as well as your blunder.’” And yet the speaker is not meant to be a prig.

There is another characteristic of Bret Hartes style which should perhaps be regarded as a form of subtlety, and that is the surprising resources of his vocabulary. He seems to have gathered all the words and idioms that might become of service to him, and to have stored them in his memory for future use. If a peculiar or technical expression was needed, he always had it at hand. Thus when the remorseful Joe Corbin told Colonel Starbottle about his sending money to the widow of the man whom he had killed in self-defence, the Colonels apt comment was, A kind of expiation or amercement of fine, known to the Mosaic, Roman and old English law. And yet his reading never took a wide range. His large vocabulary was due partly, no doubt, to an excellent memory, but still more to his keen appreciation of delicate shades in the meaning of words. He had a remarkable gift of choosing the right word. In the following lines, for example, the whole effect depends upon the discriminating selection of the verbs and adjectives:

Bunny, thrilled by unknown fears,
Raised his soft and pointed ears,
Mumbled his prehensile lip,
Quivered his pulsating hip.

Depth of feeling, subtlety of perception and intellect, these qualities, supplemented by the sense of form and beauty, go far to account for the charm of Bret Harte’s style. He had an ear for style, just as some persons have an ear for music; and he could extract beauty from language just as the musician can extract it from the strings of a violin. This kind of beauty is, in one sense, a matter of mere sound; and yet it is really much more than that. “Words, even the most perfect, owe very much to the spiritual cadence with which they are imbued."

A musical sentence, made up of words harmoniously chosen, and of sub-sentences nicely balanced, must necessarily deepen, soften, heighten, or otherwise modify the bare meaning of the words. In fact, it clothes them with that kind and degree of feeling which, as the writer consciously or unconsciously perceives, will best further his intention. Style, in short, is a substitute for speech, the author giving through the medium of his style the same emotional and personal color to his thoughts which the orator conveys by the tone and inflections of his voice. Hence the saying that the style is the man.

If we were looking for an example of mere beauty in style, perhaps we could find nothing better than this description of Maruja, after parting from her lover: “Small wonder that, hidden and silent in her enwrappings, as she lay back in the carriage, with her pale face against the cold, starry sky, two other stars came out and glistened and trembled on her passion-fringed lashes.”

No less beautiful in style are these lines:

Above the tumult of the canon lifted,
The gray hawk breathless hung,
Or on the hill a winged shadow drifted
Where furze and thorn-bush clung.

And yet, so exact is the correspondence between thought and word here, that we find ourselves doubting whether the charm of the passage lies in its form, or in the mere idea conveyed to the reader with the least possible interposition of language; and yet, again, to raise that very doubt may be the supreme effect of a consummate style.

Bret Harte was sometimes a little careless in his style, careless, that is, in the way of writing obscurely or ungrammatically, but very seldom so careless as to write in a dull or unmusical fashion. To find a harsh sentence anywhere in his works would be almost, if not quite, impossible. A leading English Review once remarked, “It was never among Mr. Bret Harte’s accomplishments to labor cheerfully with the file”; and again, a few years later, “Mr. Harte can never be accused of carelessness.” Neither statement was quite correct, but the second one comes very much nearer the truth than the first.

Beside these occasional lapses in the construction of his sentences, Bret Harte had some peculiarities in the use of English to which he clung, either out of loyalty to Dickens, from whom he seems to have derived them, or from a certain amiable perversity which was part of his character. He was a strong partisan of the “split infinitive.” A Chinaman “caused the gold piece and the letter to instantly vanish up his sleeve.” “To coldly interest Price”; “to unpleasantly discord with the general social harmony”; “to quietly reappear,” are other examples.

The wrong use of “gratuitous” is a thoroughly Dickens error, and it almost seems as if Bret Harte went out of his way to copy it. In the story of Miggles, for example, it is only a few paragraphs after Yuba Bill has observed the paralytic Jim’s “expression of perfectly gratuitous solemnity,” that his own features “relax into an expression of gratuitous and imbecile cheerfulness.”

“Aggravation” in the sense of irritation is another Dickens solecism which also appears several times in Bret Harte.

Beside these, Bret Harte had a few errors all his own. In The Story of a Mine, there is a strangely repeated use of the awkward expression “near facts,” followed by a statement that the new private secretary was a little dashed as to his “near hopes.” Diligent search reveals also “continued on” in one story, “different to” in another, “plead” for “pleaded,” “who would likely spy upon you” in an unfortunate place, and “too occupied with his subject” somewhere else.

This short list will very nearly exhaust Bret Harte’s errors in the use of English; but it must be admitted, also, that he occasionally lapses into a Dickens-like grandiloquence and cant of superior virtue. There are several examples of this in The Story of a Mine, especially in that part which relates to the City of Washington. The following paragraph is almost a burlesque of Dickens: “The actors, the legislators themselves, knew it and laughed at it; the commentators, the Press, knew it and laughed at it; the audience, the great American people, knew it and laughed at it. And nobody for an instant conceived that it ever, under any circumstances, might be different.”

Still worse is this description of the Supreme Court, which might serve as a model of confused ideas and crude reasoning, only half believed in by the writer himself: “A body of learned, cultivated men, representing the highest legal tribunal in the land, still lingered in a vague idea of earning the scant salary bestowed upon them by the economical founders of the government, and listened patiently to the arguments of counsel, whose fees for advocacy of the claims before them would have paid the life income of half the bench.”

That exquisite sketch, Wan Lee, the Pagan, is marred by this Dickens-like apostrophe to the clergy: “Dead, my reverend friends, dead! Stoned to death in the streets of San Francisco, in the year of grace, eighteen hundred and sixty-nine, by a mob of half-grown boys and Christian school-children!”

In the description of an English country church, which occurs in A Phyllis of the Sierras, we find another passage almost worthy of a “condensed novel” in which some innocent crusaders, lying cross-legged in marble, are rebuked for tripping up the unwary “until in death, as in life, they got between the congregation and the Truth that was taught there.”

Bret Harte has been accused also of “admiring his characters in the wrong place,” as Dickens certainly did; but this charge seems to be an injustice. A scene in Gabriel Conroy represents Arthur Poinsett as calmly explaining to Dona Dolores that he is the person who seduced and abandoned Grace Conroy; and he makes this statement without a sign of shame or regret. “If he had been uttering a moral sentiment, he could not have been externally more calm, or inwardly less agitated. More than that, there was a certain injured dignity in his manner,” and so forth.

This is the passage cited by that very acute critic, Mr. E. S. Nadal. But there is nothing in it or in the context which indicates that Bret Harte admired the conduct of Poinsett. He was simply describing a type which everybody will recognize; but not describing it as admirable. Bret Harte depicted his characters with so much gusto, and at the same time was so absolutely impartial and non-committal toward them, that it is easy to misconceive his own opinion of them or of their conduct. From another fault, perhaps the worst fault of Dickens, namely, his propensity for the sudden conversion of a character to something the reverse of what it always has been, Bret Harte with the single exception of Mrs. Tretherick, in An Episode of Fiddletown is absolutely free.

It should be remembered, moreover, that Bret Harte’s imitations of Dickens occur only in a few passages of a few stories. When Bret Harte nodded, he wrote like Dickens. But the better stories, and the great majority of the stories, show no trace of this blemish. Bret Harte at his best was perhaps as nearly original as any author in the world.

On the whole, it seems highly probable though the critics have mostly decided otherwise that Bret Harte derived more good than bad from his admiration for Dickens. The reading of Dickens stimulated his boyish imagination and quickened that sympathy with the weak and suffering, with the downtrodden, with the waifs and strays, with the outcasts of society, which is remarkable in both writers. The spirit of Dickens breathes through the poems and stories of Bret Harte, just as the spirit of Bret Harte breathes through the poems and stories of Kipling. Bret Harte had a very pretty satirical vein, which might easily, if developed, have made him an author of satire rather than of sentiment. Who can say that the influence of Dickens, coming at the early, plastic period of his life, may not have turned the scale?

That Dickens surpassed him in breadth and scope, Bret Harte himself would have been the first to acknowledge. The mere fact that one wrote novels and the other short stories almost implies as much. If we consider the works of an author like Hawthorne, who did both kinds equally well, it is easy to see how much more effective is the long story. Powerful as Hawthorne’s short stories are the “Minister’s Black Veil,” for example they cannot rival the longer-drawn, more elaborately developed tragedy of “The Scarlet Letter.”

The characters created by Dickens have taken hold of the popular imagination, and have influenced public sentiment in a degree which cannot be attributed to the characters of Bret Harte. Dickens, moreover, despite his vulgarisms, despite even the cant into which he occasionally falls, had a depth of sincerity and conviction that can hardly be asserted for Bret Harte. Dickens’ errors in taste were superficial; upon any important matter he always had a genuine opinion to express. With respect to Bret Harte, on the other hand, we cannot help feeling that his errors in taste, though infrequent, are due to a want of sincerity, to a want of conviction upon deep things.

And yet, despite the fact that Dickens excelled Bret Harte in depth and scope, there is reason to think that the American author of short stories will outlast the English novelist. The one is, and the other is not, a classic writer. It was said of Dickens that he had no “citadel of the mind,” no mental retiring-place, no inward poise or composure; and this defect is shown by a certain feverish quality in his style, as well as by those well-known exaggerations and mannerisms which disfigure it.

Bret Harte, on the other hand, in his best poems and stories, exhibits all that restraint, all that absence of idiosyncrasy as distinguished from personality, which marks the true artist. What the world demands is the peculiar flavor of the artist’s mind; but this must be conveyed in a pure and unadulterated form, free from any ingredient of eccentricity or self-will. In Bret Harte there is a wonderful economy both of thought and language. Everything said or done in the course of a story contributes to the climax or end which the author has in view. There are no digressions or superfluities; the words are commonly plain words of Anglo-Saxon descent; and it would be hard to find one that could be dispensed with. The language is as concise as if the story were a message, to be delivered to the reader in the shortest possible time.

One other point of much importance remains to be spoken of, although it might be difficult to say whether it is really a matter of style or of substance. Nothing counts for more in the telling of a story, especially a story of adventure, than the author’s attitude toward his characters; not simply the fact that he blames or praises them, or abstains from doing so, but his unspoken attitude, his real feeling, disclosed between the lines. Too much admiration on the part of the author is fatal to a classic effect, even though the admiration be implied rather than expressed. This is perhaps the greatest weakness of Mr. Kipling. That a man should be a gentleman is always, strangely enough, a matter of some surprise to that conscientious author, and that he should be not only a gentleman, but actually brave in addition, is almost too much for Mr. Kipling’s equanimity. His heroes, those gallant young officers whom he describes so well, are exhibited to the reader with something of that pride which a showman or a fond mother might pardonably display. Mr. Kipling knows them thoroughly, but he is not of them. He is their humble servant. They are, he seems to feel, members of a species to which he, the author, and probably the reader also, are not akin. Now, almost everybody who writes about fighting or heroic men in these days, about highwaymen, cow-boys, river-drivers, woodsmen, or other primitive characters, imitates Mr. Kipling, very seldom Bret Harte. Partly, no doubt, this is because Mr. Kipling’s mannerisms are attractive, and easily copied. That little trick, for example, of beginning sentences with the word “also,” is a familiar earmark of the Kipling school.

But a stronger reason for imitating Mr. Kipling is that the attitude of frank admiration which he assumes is the natural attitude for the ordinary writer. Such a writer falls into it unconsciously, and does not easily rise above it. The author is a “tenderfoot,” discoursing to another tenderfoot, the reader, about the brave and wonderful men whom he has met in the course of his travels; and the reader’s astonishment and admiration are looked for with confidence.

Vastly different from all this is the attitude of Bret Harte. He takes it for granted that the Pioneers in general had the instincts of gentlemen and the courage of heroes. His characters are represented not as exceptional California men, but as ordinary California men placed in rather exceptional circumstances. Brave as they are, they are never brave enough to surprise him. He is their equal. He never boasts of them nor about them. On the contrary, he gives the impression that the whole California Pioneer Society was constructed upon the same lofty plane, as indeed it was, barring a few renegades.

When Edward Brice, the young expressman, “set his white lips together, and with a determined face, and unfaltering step,” walked straight toward the rifle held in Snapshot Harry’s unerring hands, the incident astonishes nobody, except perhaps the reader. Certainly it does not astonish the persons who witness or the author who records it. It evokes a little good-humored banter from Snapshot Harry himself, and a laughing compliment from his beautiful niece, Flora Dimwood, but nothing more. We have been told that Shakspere cut no great figure in his own time because his contemporaries were cast in much the same heroic mould, greatness of soul being a rather common thing in Elizabethan days. For a similar reason, the heroes of Bret Harte are accepted by one another, by the minor characters, and, finally, by the author himself, with perfect composure and without visible surprise.

Bret Harte makes the reader feel that he is describing not simply a few men and women of nobility, but a whole society, an epoch, of which he was himself a part; and this gives an element of distinction, even of immortality, to his stories. Had only one man died at Thermopylae, the fact would have been remembered by the world, but it would have lost its chief significance. The death of three hundred made it a typical act of the Spartan people. The time will come when California, now strangely unappreciative of its own past, and of the writer who preserved it, will look back upon the Pioneers as the modern Greek looks back upon Sparta and Athens.